09/03/2003 12:00AM

How to get value betting first-time starters


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When assessing the merits of a first-time starter, the focus tends to be on the trainer, the sales price, the pedigree, and the works.

Strengths in these areas rarely go unnoticed by the betting public. If a trainer is skilled with young horses, his first-out win percentage is visible at the bottom of Daily Racing Form past performances. If a horse sold well as a yearling, it is right there in the past performances. Ditto for the pedigree information and workouts.

So what is the best way to get an edge? To look in areas where others are not looking. When analyzing young horses, I prefer to play inexpensive runners, not those that sold for six figures.

If a sharp trainer has a $22,000 yearling in a maiden special weight race instead of a maiden $50,000 claimer, he might like the horse so much that he would consider it a loss if the horse were claimed for $50,000, more than double what the owners paid.

On the other hand, he may be running the horse in a maiden special weight merely to give it a race, or because his owners are not realistic about the horse's ability.

Even with that gamble, I'd rather play a horse like this who is working well, provided the trainer has a win-early reputation with inexpensive horses, than play a rich purchase who will be overbet off his sales price.

I also like to support young horses coming off a deceptively quick gate work. Gate works usually come in company, and because horses are taught to break quickly in these drills, they are generally asked for more run than workers simply breezing an easy half-mile.

Although gate works can be fast, they tend to be a couple of seconds slower than the fastest works of the day at that distance. A sharp five-furlong gate work, in 1:01.40 for example, is roughly equivalent to a non-gate work in 59 seconds and change. Yet it is not treated that way by bettors.

These works are slower because they are timed from a standing start. That is not the case with non-gate works. Horses working a regular half-mile, for example, often break off from their gallop a sixteenth of a mile before the half-mile pole. By the time their work begins, they have momentum and are running at close to full speed. This makes their times faster.

What is the best way to isolate quick gate works? Aside from being at the track to observe the works, the best strategy is to keep workout records. Those listed at the back of DRF are a good resource, as are works posted on the Internet.

I like to keep track of the gate works, and note which one was the quickest from the gate for that distance. I pay attention to those that were at least a couple of fifths better than the next-best gate work at the distance. I then plug that horse's name into Horse Watch, and follow him during the early part of his careers.

Quite often, one quick work will not stick out. It is common to see two or more horses with the same time when working from the gate. This may mean the horses worked in company and finished together.

This can prove rewarding if one of the horses turns in a good debut race before the other starts. He will foreshadow that the other horse is a quality runner by his good performance.

I have found that it also pays to go back to workout charts and circle the names of debut winners and those that ran well first time out, irrespective if I had been tracking them from the start.

Perhaps there were other horses who had worked faster from the gate than that horse. If so, they merit following.

Not all of these types deserve play when they debut. No matter how quick they are, inexperience often plagues first-time starters. They have to catch the right circumstances to win their debuts, and even then, they need luck leaving the gate.

My preferred angle is to play these horses as second-time starters, particularly if their debuts were not stick-out races. With the benefit of experience, they often run back to the quick gate works they showed - sometimes at prices.